I write these words on the fourth of the seven golden nights.
It’s a Catholic tradition for the last 1600 years, to beg God’s help for humanity on seven consecutive nights, starting on December 17 and ending at Christmas.
Each of the seven prayers is offered in the evening, each is brief and powerful, each is taken from the Scriptures, and together they bind the ages of history with a single golden thread. This is why they are called the golden nights.
Each of the prayers is also the entry song for the famous canticle of vespers called the Magnificat, which although it applies to Mary, and echoes far back into the Bible, is for the one praying a way to give God permission to use them in any way helpful to the salvation of the world.
The idea of salvation is far from uniform among the worlds many religions, but for sure in the Christian tradition it includes making this world a better place.
Although we are getting ready for Christmas, what is more on my mind is an anniversary that will come three weeks from now, the fifth anniversary of Haiti’s devastating earthquake.
For me this memory will always be tied to the death of my mother. I left Haiti for Connecticut right after Christmas that year, to join my family in taking the best care of my mother that we could while she was dying of cancer, and to be able to spend time with her before she was gone forever, especially since my priesthood has kept me far from home for the past 35 years.
During those precious days, on January 12th we watched with disbelief and with horror the news of the earthquake on television. I was shaken by the tragedy in Haiti, and torn as to what to do because to return to Haiti would be to sacrifice the chance to be with my mother, to help her, hold her, hear her last works and advice, for this very last time on earth.
I remember her words clearly, when taking her eyes off the television she looked at me and said, “Rick, you have to go back to Haiti right away, your help will be lifesaving.”
We spoke into the late hours, and I delayed leaving home for as long as I could, but at midnight I had to head to New York, to catch the first flight to the Dominican Republic, to travel by land to Port au Prince. As I closed the kitchen door behind me that night, it felt like the heaviest door on earth.
The Prophet Isaiah said “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the one who brings news of peace, who announces good things, who announces salvation. (Isaiah 52:7)
Arriving in Haiti the next days, it was immensely evident that the backdrop to all the chaos and sorrow was heroism.
How beautiful upon the mountains the torn feet of wounded mothers as they carried their wounded children to our doors for help.
How beautiful up the mountains the feet of the strangers who dug through rubble with their bare and bloody hands, desperate to open a pathway wherever they heard the weak cries of someone buried alive, and who then brought them to our doors, using sheets, broken boards and their backs to carry them.
How beautiful upon the mountains the single foot of so many survivors who, in order to live, had to sacrifice parts of their bodies. How beautiful their courage and determination, their love of life.
How beautiful upon the mountains the feet of the thousands and thousands of homeless, sleeping on streets, medians and in public parks, singing thunderous songs into the night, songs of lament and supplication.
How beautiful the feet!
Why were feet of the messenger the focus of Isaiah’s praise?
It’s because in ancient times, the only way to receive news, was by someone personally bringing it on foot. The word came through a person. It was close and personal. The bearer of the word suffered to do so, and took personal sacrifices and risks.
The massive help required in the face of the earthquake needed to be close and personal, good words in action, at great sacrifice and risk.
And so I continue:
How beautiful upon the mountains the feet of the courageous and generous St. Luke and NPH teams, who in spite of their own losses and sorrows, sped to the rescue without hesitation or delay.
How beautiful upon the mountains their feet as they set up rescue camps for vulnerable children, maternity programs, and shared food and drink, clothes and blankets with thousands in steady supply.
How beautiful upon the mountains the feet of our teams who buried the dead in seemingly infinite numbers, praying over them the Hail Mary and the Mourners Kaddish.
How beautiful upon the mountains the weary feet of our medical teams, enlarging the hospital by using tents, gardens and sidewalks, to care for the endless stream of the wounded coming through our gates.
How beautiful upon the mountains those who left their homes in Italy, Germany, Spain, Netherlands, France, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, and so many countries to tend to the wounded, bind their wounds, perform their surgeries, and deliver their babies. They slept on crowded roofs when they slept at all, they gave their skills and their love to a suffering nation.
(Having said all these blessing, the awful parts were really awful, as you can imagine.)
Finally, how blessed on the mountains the two beautiful feet of our twin missions, NPH and St. Luke, the second born from the fruit of the first, and grounded in the spirit of the St. Paul of the Cross, two large feet leaving impressive tracks of goodness, complementary to each other and interchanging, together building solid institutions, and ever committed to impressive front line engagement and long standing community based commitment, in a relentless effort to relieve human suffering.
From these two missions were born these fruits since the earthquake:
The Fr. Wasson Angels of Light home and school, for child victims of the earthquake, and other vulnerable children.
The high-risk maternity and neonatology programs at St. Damien Hospital.
St. Luke Hospital, St. Mary Hospital, and Manitane pre natal clinic and women’s health center.
The cholera units at St. Damien, St. Luke and St. Mary hospitals.
The enormous high school, the Academy for Peace and Justice.
The Sr. Joan Margaret School for the blind and deaf.
The rehabilitation and physical therapy programs at St. Germain, Gabriel and Kay Eliane.
Community development and the building of 150 houses for the poor.
The repair of St. Luke elementary schools and the addition of 3 new ones for a total of 30 schools.
The Vocation and professional school, Our Lady of Guadeloupe.
The expansion and improvement of Francisville Production Center.
The creation of the Villa Francesca Guest center.
The enlargement of the programs for teens and young adults, expansion of the University program including international studies, expanded high school programs and special programs for troubled youth.
The planting of fields and harvesting of mangos, bananas, moringa, and other crops and fruits.
The high intensity cultivation of tilapa, the raising of chickens (broilers and laying hens), the raising of rabbits.
The roasting of native coffee and preferential employment of people with earthquake related disabilities to work in the agricultural program.
The team that cares for the mentally ill on the streets and in the state asylum.
The disaster teams that bring relief in flooding and hurricanes, fires and other disasters, and continue to bury 6,000 destitute dead a year.
All of these works, in addition to what we were doing before the earthquake, continue in vigor, and provide 1,600 jobs, everyone one of which is aimed at caring for the vulnerable or marginalized.
So you see, the famous question about Haiti, “Where did all the money go?” doesn’t apply to us. It was received, used well, is giving good fruit, and you can come and visit and see for yourself any time. We would be very glad for our visit.
Our feet are rooted and anchored, on the ground for many decades, fully committed in their pace and stride, and don’t step back come hell or high water.
Our feet carry the daily load of arduous work, we bear the heat and dust of the day, our work is person to person, our faith and hope are shared, as are our dangers, our sorrows and our joys. We accept the hard work gladly, our jobs are not desk jobs. We do not give up, because love never fails.
I started this letter talking about the seven prayers for humanity. It’s time now for the fourth prayer. I think you agree that prayers for humanity during these golden nights have never been more important.
I have noticed in life that often the very best of us comes out when very worst is happening.
Let’s stick together and not lose this great momentum. There is still plenty of “worst” out there.
You can’t beat the cause. It’s us. The human family,
Merry Christmas and blessings in the new year!